Tuesday 17 January 2012


A full moon is shining, bathing the woodland in a pale unearthly gleam. Then it passes behind clouds and the darkness deepens.  At first it seems silent but then I hear the sudden cry of a fox, the hoot of owl; a rustle in the undergrowth; sounds I don’t notice by day.  As my eyes become accustomed to the dark, I see and feel the landscape in a totally different way.  

Do you fear the dark or embrace it?  Me, I love the countryside at night. Whether by moonlight or in the pitch dark of the occult moon, it’s a whole different world. 
Everything is more intense. Your senses are more alert.  It’s just more…I dunno…spine-tingling, exciting.  Yet our society generally shuns the dark, turning almost obsessively towards the light.  Why else do we keep the street lights on and bathe every building in brightness?  Is it because, deep within us, there still lurks an atavistic fear of the dark – of wild animals and menacing human enemies?  Do the shadows conjure nightmares of ghosts and ghouls and things that hiss and rustle in the night?  Or is it that we rely so much on the sense of sight?  Once darkness falls, the advantage shifts to those creatures which use other senses.  What we can’t see often frightens us? But at the edge of fear comes excitement, no? 
Try it.  Turn off your torch too.  Our eyes have something called dark adaptation so that, during low light levels the body produces a photosensitive chemical called rhodopsin.  When bright light hits the eye, the rhodopsin splits into two leaving you night blind (which is why you can’t see in the dark after turning a bright torch on and then off again). 

Yes, you gotta take sensible precautions but really, don’t let fear put you off embracing the magic of a dark night.  Of course, there’s night swimming too, and boating – is there anything more magical than moonlight on water?  But I save that for summer. J
Then, of course, there are the stars.  One of my greatest joys, when we lived out on the moor, perched on top of a hill, was to lie out on the grass on a summer night and watch the star-tangled magic skies. Dazzling star dancers in stately swirls of symphonic splendour.  Okay, that’s enough sidereal alliteration.  I used to send myself quite dizzy, projecting myself into the Milky Way to join the dance; imagining myself huge, embraced by supernovas.
But anyhow.  I’m pleased that our Exmoor skies have been recognised as some of the darkest in the country.  We’ve been designated a Dark Sky Reserve, the first in Europe.  Actually this does puzzle me as, when I look at a Google satellite map of Europe there are some helluva big tracts of open countryside out there but hey…I’m not complaining.  We’ve got it so we’ll sure as hell milk it!  
Truly, if you love dark skies, if you love watching the stars and planets, that whole great big amazing universe out there (and the ones beyond), this is the place to come.  Because of our lack of light pollution, it makes it a great place to come to starwatch.  We also boast a DarkSky Discovery site over at Wimbleball Lake. 
Now, I don’t know if you’ve been watching BBC Two’sStargazing LIVE with Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. But tomorrow (8pm on 18th January) Dulverton is going to be the star of the show when astronomer Mark Thompson asks all of us here in town to turn off our lights.  The idea being that we show the rest of the UK just how amazing a sky without light pollution may be.  Apparently they’re bringing astronomers (tame ones, I hope) and telescopes. As they say on their leaflet –

There’s a whole universe of incredible wonders above your head, isn’t it time you looked up?

Oh, and check out Exmoor Star Gazers....

Oh (again), and in typical Dulverton fashion the local businesses have joined in with some fabulous window displays.  Even the estate agents are getting in on the act with some truly terrible puns! 
light pollution from shop opposite! 


Rob-bear said...

The dark is wonderful, as long as you're comfortable about a chance encounter with a Bear or a Moose.

Being right across the river from downtown, there is a huge amount of light pollution around our human filing cabinet. But a five minute drive into the country changes that quite effectively. Unless there's a cloudy night.

Here is Saskatchewan, we have had a dark sky reserve in the far southwest for a number of years now. I've not been there, but we hope to some time. Stargazing will be grand!

Will said...

Hats off to the folk of Dulverton for hijacking the whole Dark Skies thing. If you look at Exmoor National Parks information booklet you'll see that Lynton/Lynmouth, Exford and Porlock are all closer to the truly dark skies :-)

Exmoorjane said...

@Rob - yeah, guess it's a wee bit different in Canada. :)

@Will He he!!! We're a canny bunch! Though, tbf, when we were at Winsford, we used to get some light pollution from Minehead and the whole coastline suffers a bit from Wales.

Milla said...

love the Star Walk app on my reviled iPhone. Only app I've paid for. Shows me what should be there, what IS there, behind the fug of orange getting in the way. Our village doesn't have street lights. And doesn't need it. Torches. Walking down the middle of the road (not so easy now they've mercifully painted out the middle lines). Everything is so wet and easy peasy and safety and dull nowadays!

Cait O'Connor said...

I love the dark, have never been afraid of it but then I am a night owl. We also have unpolluted skies here in Wales where I live, we are so lucky.

Ren Warom said...

I have only just been able to look up to a starry sky again recently. Had a VERY unnerving and humbling experience a while back that made me unwilling to look up for the longest time - was that basic, gut-deep sort of fear, the very primitive kind.

I've always known how small we really are and how huge the universe (and what is in it) is, but this experience blew the fuses in my head for a while. Too much to know.

But a starry sky is a glorious thing to behold and here in Brum the light pollution pretty much blinds us to the full beauty of it. :(

Alison Cross said...

Looking forward to tonight's show -flash you lights so that we can see you! Alex

Tee said...

I ♥ the dark! It makes me feel at home. I was out last night, beautifully clear it was. Usa Major and Ursa Minor were easily picked out, that usually doesn't happen in the city. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the moon. O_o